The Brothers Have Spoken: Between The World & Me and The Fire Next Time

by Shardae Jobson

I immediately stopped drafting my original review of Ta-Nehisi CoatesBetween the World and Me after I had skimmed reviews online and read more than once, that he was directly influenced by a specific piece of non-fiction work: James Baldwin‘s The Fire Next Time.

Having just completed Between The World and Me, I was eager to write my thoughts about it. I felt a wonderful wash of calmness and unity from Coates’ words. As an example, from said draft, the following is a snippet of the sentimental waves I had experienced.

“About 20 pages into Between the World and Me, I had to pause and acknowledge that I felt incredibly at peace while reading Ta-nehisi Coates’ book. I still can’t quite explain the emotional phenomena I felt. But I do know for sure, that my surge of calmness blanketed a lot of things. I, for one, felt less alone. At least, for the time being. Second. A renewed belief that Black love was still here. Against the too many memes and too many jokes at the expense of Black women, they were still Black men out there that cared for the Black woman’s safety, legacy and rise. Just as they do for their fellow Black men. It sounds so personal. Almost too much (so) for a review of a book that is public domain. But it is almost always personal when you are Black in America. Nevermind, just yet, the many layers that make up one’s Blackness ranging from culture, upbringing, pop culture, interactions, and lineage. Plus the need to type “Black love” as a political statement rather than a warm expression as if it is 1967.”

That paragraph was heavy with praise and the wisdom I felt I had (re)gained. After briefing from The New York Times to Slate about Between and mentionings of Fire, I thought to myself: if Coates’ had this kind of effect on me…how would I react to the begetter Baldwin?

circa 1985: Headshot of American author James Baldwin at Hampshire College, Amherst, Massachusetts. (Photo by Ruby Washington/New York Times Co./Getty Images)
circa 1985: Headshot of American author James Baldwin at Hampshire College, Amherst, Massachusetts. (Photo by Ruby Washington/New York Times Co./Getty Images)

I sought The Fire Next Time like the treasure it is from the Boston Public Library. Before, I was only acquainted with Baldwin’s fiction, such as Go Tell It On The Mountain. And viewed YouTube clips of the gifted author giving extraordinary answers to tough questions about race and society. We also share a minor kinship in that I was ten months old when he passed away on December 1, 1987. I was born earlier that year in February.

Fire and Between are letters of love and advice to the respective beloveds of the authors. For Baldwin, his nephew James. For Coates, his son Samori. Both additionally coexist as open letters to America, confronting the nation’s history of prejudice and discrimination towards Black and African-American people. Baldwin and Coates attempt to explain how we, as a nation, got to a place of rationalized hate, with points lifted from recorded history and familial and personal junctures. At the time of Fire‘s 1963 publishing, it was the hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Its successor, Between, was published just this past fall, amidst the continuing headstrong movement of #BlackLivesMatter.

<> on November 11, 2015 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
<> on November 11, 2015, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

My time with Between was unique in that I didn’t have a physical copy of the book. I listened to it via with Coates’ voice providing the narration. I can’t help but think that by listening to his timbre, whether on the numerous killings of unarmed Black people or how Samori was the apple of both him and his wife Kenyatta’s eyes, a more sentimental impression of his work was left behind. It’s a beautiful book but also undeniably firm in delivering itself as the monumental truth on the state of racism. It’s a topic Coates’ become famous for. His current tenure is as a news and race correspondent for The Atlantic. He has scribed cover stories that include last October’s “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.”

By 1963, Baldwin held an admirable list of literature gems, earned peer respect, and was an active participant in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. An interesting, quieted layer to Fire is that Baldwin was able to locate the racist hypocrisies of the White men and women of his day, despite so often being entertained and wined and dined by them, due to his literary star power. In Fire, he rips apart the absurdity of how so many White Americans practiced Christianity but were anything but towards people of color (“If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more, loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him” pg. 47). (Debunking the White man’s Christianity is a popular motif of the #StayWoke world of many pro-Black accounts on social media today).

Baldwin further expressed that amongst the bigot White people aplenty, a selected few were, however, noble and fair (pg. 72). The dichotomy bothered him deeply because the adage of treating others how you want to be treated was criminally missing in everyday action.

“When we were told to love everybody, I had thought that meant everybody. But no. It applied only to those who believed as we did, and it did not apply to white people at all. I was told by a minister, for example, that I should never, on any public conveyance, under any circumstances, rise and give my seat to a white woman. White men never rose for Negro women. Well, that was true enough, in the main-I saw his point. But what was the point, the purpose of my salvation if it did not permit me to behave with love toward others, no matter how they behaved toward me (pg. 40)”

By that afterthought of his, I had begun to differentiate how each author viewed race relations. Coates responded disturbed by racism’s lingering presence. This was evident even in his smooth delivery on a Kindle tablet. Baldwin accepted it as far as racism having been institutionalized. Yet both authors, in their own way, took the lids off of racist myths and released the reality of what racism really is (a psychological disease, a looming red flag of inflamed insecurity).

Baldwin was more poetic in explaining a racist’s shortcomings. But that’s not to say he wasn’t as blisteringly honest as Coates naturally is. In fact. When Baldwin was angry about race, the block was too hot.

“Allah allowed the Devil, through his scientists, to carry our infernal experiments, which resulted, finally, in the creation of the devil known as the white man, and later, even more disastrously, in the creation of the white woman. And it was decreed that these monstrous creatures should rule the earth for a certain number of years-I forget how many thousands, but in any case, their rule is ending, and Allah, who had never approved of the creation of the white man in the first place (who knows him, in fact, to be not a man at all but a devil), is anxious to restore the rule of peace that the rise of the white man totally destroyed (pg. 67)”.

Baldwin and Coates were in great metacognition for their books. Baldwin focused on the mental and Coates used the template of the “black body” as his emotional compass. To him, (White) America’s been on a perpetual mission to destroy the “black body.” Three particular quotes I jotted down, without interfering the sonic flow of Between the World and Me, were:

“The destruction of black beauty is connected to the destruction of black bodies.”

“It is heritage to destroy the black body.”

“Black life is cheap. But in America, black bodies are the natural resource of incomparable value.”

The word “body” is especially important in his book for its literal connection to the terrible increase of unarmed Black victims in the last four years, including the infamous murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. When his body was shot in daylight by inept officer Darren Wilson in 2014, Brown’s body was left in the middle of Canfield Drive for four hours before taken in by authorities. The Black body doesn’t matter in America. The Black body is replaceable.

It was very clear that in Between, Coates loves Black people and its culture but was tired of having to defend it and the melanin that undeniably comes with it.

“The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me.”

Other soundbites I was able to scribble include:

“The craft of writing is the art of thinking.”

“I wanted to write like those Black people danced.”

“…serious history was the West. And the West was White.”

Coates also loved the library.

As an undergrad at Howard University (though he didn’t graduate), it was there he recognized just how far and in depth the Africa or Black Diaspora went. Meaning that he viewed Panamians and Bajans as his brothers and sisters just the same.

He also spoke highly of the role of being a father.

I adored Between the World and Me when I finished it. But in reading The Fire Next Time afterward, I was able to fully gauge the magnitude of Between‘s purpose. I also developed a heightened sense of gratitude to Baldwin for continuing the disquisition on race from the perspective of those that have suffered from it most publicly. Just as Frederick Douglass and underrated masterpieces like Incidents of A Slave Girl did before. (In 1965, the Autobiography of Malcolm X would be published). I felt loved by Between the World and Me. I felt awoken by The Fire Next Time. Coates was an older brother reminding me to not believe the bullshit. Baldwin schooled me on how the bullshit formed in the first place.

On page 83, Baldwin wrote: “Now, it is extremely unlikely that Negroes will ever rise to power in the United States because they are only approximately a 9th of this nation.” In the twenty-two years from his passing in 1987, Barack Obama would become America’s first Black President.

Yet as heartwarming as that is. Sadly, time has gone backward, and not in a fun nostalgic way despite such progress. The deaths of Brown, Renisha McBride, and too many others, along with Fire, provoked Between to occur. Asking where this leaves America is too heavy a question to encapsulate for a review on these books. But we can ask, what does it mean for the literary world.

The common denominator of The Fire Next Time and Between the World and Me is that whether you read one, the other, or both, is how reflective and accurate Baldwin and Coates were in writing about the injustices they explored, no matter the decade the reader is/was in. This in retrospective is astonishing as subjects for books. But a lamentable wake-up call for all of us once the pages have turned to the last.

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